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Concerns raised over new business regulations

As the 2010 Equality Act comes into force, a leading business group has expressed worries over the effect that new business regulations will have on the ability of the private sector to create jobs and drive the recovery.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has argued that the new Equality Act will place an additional burden on firms at a time when they are struggling to emerge from the recession.

Abigail Morris of the BCC said: "Businesses are really concerned.

"The government's own impact assessment shows that this is going to cost £190 million just for businesses to understand the legislation, and this at a time when we really need them to be concentrating on creating private sector jobs and driving economic recovery."

The BCC went on to point out that more employment legislation is in the pipeline between now and 2014, and estimated that compliance costs could climb to as much as £11.3 billion.

The business group wants to see a moratorium on all new regulation.

David Frost, the director general of the BCC, commented: "While we have heard some good announcements from the Coalition about reviewing and scrutinising upcoming red tape, businesses are yet to see the benefits.

"The government now has the chance to prove its commitment to reducing the substantial burden of regulation, by putting the brakes on any costly new employment law coming into force during the life of this Parliament."

The Equality Act 2010, which took effect as from 1 October, draws nine separate pieces of anti-discrimination legislation into a single legal frame.

Its principle aim is to ensure that there is a consistency in what employers are required to do in order to make sure workplaces are fair and equitable.

The Act covers those groups within the population who are already safeguarded by existing laws that ban discrimination on grounds of age, race, disability, religion, belief, gender, sexual orientation, marriage, civil partnership and pregnancy.

The Act does, however, introduce some new rules of which employers will need to be aware.

Harassment

In the matter of harassment, the Act includes treatment that is based on perception and association. For example, employees will be able to complain of harassment even if it is not directed against them should they be able to prove that the harassment creates an offensive environment. Additionally, employers could be held liable for harassment of an employee by a third party - customers, suppliers - in the workplace if they don't take reasonable steps to stop the harassment happening.

Disability

The Equality Act adds an extra dimension to disability discrimination. Should a person be treated unfairly as a consequence of something that arises from their disability - they are dismissed because of absences from work that are related to their disability - then the employer could be seen as having discriminated that person.

Employers should no longer send out health questionnaires with employment application packs, although there are some exemptions for questions that relate to making reasonable adjustments for applicants who are disabled.

Tribunals

Employment tribunals will be allowed to ask employers found guilty of discrimination to amend their policies and practices to ensure that discrimination does not occur in the future.

Employees can now file discrimination claims on two grounds - but no more - instead of one. For example, a woman from an ethnic minority can submit a tribunal claim on grounds both of gender and race discrimination.

Pay

Employers with at least 250 employees may have to publish information that relates to the differences in pay between men and women. A claim for equal pay can be made even when there is no 'comparator' - such as a colleague who is doing similar work - so long as the unfair treatment can be demonstrated to be the consequence of a person's gender (an employer saying they would pay more money if the employee were a man). The Act also prohibits employment clauses that prevent employees from discussing how much they are paid where the aim of the discussion is to find out if they have been discriminated against.

However, the Act will not oblige employers to reveal how much they pay men compared with women as had been planned by the previous government.

Announcing the introduction of the Act, Theresa May, the Equalities Minister, said that consolidating the laws will mean that it will be easier for firms to comply with anti-discrimination rules.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission added: "Everyone is protected by the new law. The Act covers age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex (meaning gender) and sexual orientation.

"Under the Act people are not allowed to discriminate, harass or victimise another person because they belong to a group that the Act protects, they are thought to belong to one of those groups or are associated with someone who does."